U.S. should have missile defense system

by William Robert Johnston
in The Brownsville Herald, August 17, 2001, p. A10
(unedited version)

The Cold War may have ended in 1991, but this year may mark the beginning of another profound change. George W. Bush became the first leader of either superpower to call for ending reliance on a threat of mutual nuclear destruction.

On May 1, the President declared that the usefulness of the ABM treaty was over. Instead of relying on the threat of nuclear revenge, we should deploy a system that might actually prevent the deaths of millions of Americans.

Recall that Bill Clinton vetoed every call for missile defense--until 1998. That May, his administration again asserted that no third world country could threaten the U.S. with missiles for 15 years. Within four months, three such countries tested new theater missiles and two tested nuclear bombs.

Throughout the 1980s, Brownsville was one of many cities only 35 minutes from annihilation, were the unthinkable to happen. Brownsville may or may not be in the cross hairs today, but other U.S. cities can be destroyed within an hour of an intentional decision or accidental act by Russia or mainland China.

If missiles were accidentally launched against us, there is currently nothing for America to do to stop them from destroying whole cities. This is because our politicians promised not to try to stop them.

This threat is not imaginary: by some measures the closest the world has come to a nuclear war was not at the height of the Cold War, but in 1995. Confusion over a scientific rocket led President Yeltsin and his generals to activate their nuclear command procedures and contemplate launching nuclear weapons for a few scary minutes. Russian early warning systems have deteriorated even more since then.

Missile defense opponents tie the hands of engineers, then after every successful test they contrive explanations for why missile defense is still impossible. By their reasoning, auto safety testing is meaningless because crash tests don‘t use real people on real roads--and further, cars need to stay unsafe because any improvement will make drivers reckless.

In fact, July's successful anti-missile test comes 17 years after the U.S. first shot down a bullet with a bullet. In 1984, the U.S. shot down a dummy nuclear warhead over the Pacific: a piece of metal struck and destroyed a desk-sized target at a distance that would span the nation, no explosives needed.

Technology is not the issue. The Russians have had a limited missile defense since 1970. Nuclear warheads on missiles are necessarily big and delicate--and vulnerable. The trends in miniaturization, computer technology, and lasers are such that it is unavoidable that nuclear ICBMs will eventually become obsolete. The U.S. can lead this trend or it can play catch up later.

What of the critics' contention that if the U.S. builds a missile defense, then Russia, mainland China, and all these other countries will build more missiles? If the U.S. dons a bulletproof vest, they say, then the other guys will all get better guns.

But if these countries are so peace loving, why will they decide they need to kill millions of Americans? The fact is that this would be no change. A Chinese general offered to vaporize Los Angeles in 1995 if we didn't stop protecting our allies. The North Koreans landed a dummy warhead off Alaska in 1998--yes, Alaskans are Americans too, and they want to be defended (as they unsuccessfully told Clinton).

Consider the recent editorial by Stephen Young, which predicted so many dire international consequences of a U.S. missile defense. What he didn't say is that many of these "reactions" have already occurred. The imagined responses by Communist China, for example, mostly began five to ten years ago. Missile defense will not change who our enemies are, or how much they want us dead.

When a U.S. missile defense is built, no country will be able to gain from a missile attack on the U.S. Can they find other ways to kill Americans? Certainly. But none of them can be done at the push of a button. In 1962, the world avoided nuclear war over Cuba in part because most nuclear weapons were on aircraft. Leaders knew they had time to think about the situation. In 1995, Yeltsin's fear was that he might only have four minutes to decide.

The opponents of missile defense assure us that someone like Saddam Hussein would never launch a missile against Americans in anger, that the accidents and military unrest in Russia would never result in a missile launch, that the North Koreans will keep all the promises they have broken in the past. In reality, diplomacy is no more reliable than technology.

Democrats are in a race against time to stop missile defense. Sooner or later, Americans will recognize their position as indistinguishable from that of Russian hardliners and the Communist Chinese politburo. Perhaps then, America will recognize that missile defense is in its best interests.

© 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 17 August 2001.
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